Why I Rarely Tell People I Have a Mental Illness

Why is it that every organ in your body can get sick and you get sympathy except the brain? ―Ruby Wax

Subtitle: It would be so much easier to disclose I have a blood disorder.

Which I actually do. But unlike a bipolar disorder, it’s not so much of a conversation stopper. Most people have never heard of it, so a lengthy explanation of my blood disorder follows. They then become well-educated on what it is and how it affects me.

Ah. If only explaining bipolar disorder were so simple.

Both my blood disorder and bipolar disorder are genetic diseases of vital organs.
Neither one is visible if you simply look at me.
I wear no identification bracelet.

But that’s where the comparison ends because of preconceived information, thoughts, or bias. Choose your reason. People believe they know all about mental illness–yet they are able to keep an open mind on learning about a fairly rare blood disorder but not bipolar. I can tell you the reason why, but first let me tell you how I view these people.

The Completely Ignorant

These people have seen television stories about mass shooters who the (unlicensed as psychologists) media have deemed mentally ill, often bipolar or schizophrenic. They accept everything they see on television as the absolute truth and question nothing. Rarely do they read newspapers, unless you count The National Enquirer in grocery checkout lines.

The Moderately Informed

Unlike the Completely Ignorant, these people do read print media and do not depend on Nancy Grace to tell them right from wrong. They have the ability, but not always the desire, to dig deeper if they hear information they do not understand. They are satisfied thinking that no one they know could possibly have a mental illness, although one out of six of their friends do.

The Sympathetic Friends & Family

These well-meaning people do know about bipolar disorder. Even if they don’t really understand it, they are sympathetic that you honestly have times where you are too depressed to leave the house. If your name comes up at family gatherings, they will defend your honor and behavior because they love you unconditionally.

The Empaths

My trusted mental health team are empathetic to the fact that I have a brain disease, not by choice, and must manage it every day to stay in the zone of stability. My first-line Empaths are my fellow bipolars. They will always be my first go-to’s because they get it. My other team members are my brothers, my former husband, a childhood best friend, and my psychiatrist and therapist. The criteria is demanding. They have gone out of their way to educate themselves and understand bipolar disorder. They’ve learned my triggers and distress signs–sometimes before I do. I can call them at 3:00 am and ask for help without fear of judgment. They’ve seen me both at the top of my career and at the lowest in Pajama Hilton stays. And, oh God, they love me so much that sometimes it hurts because it’s a love so precious to me.

Now, earlier I told you that I know the reason why people react the way they do when I tell them I have bipolar disorder, as opposed to when I tell them I have a blood disorder. I can tell you why in one word and it’s the sum total of why I tell my stories. Because someday I want this word to go away.

To be in a place where if it’s spoken out loud that no one has any idea what it means. You will no longer be able to find it in Dictionary.com. Because it will have ceased to exist and will no longer have meaning. Poof. Gone. Disappeared. Everyone will be in the Age of Enlightenment.

This word is stigma.

Oh, and just so you know, I have the genetic blood disorder hemochromatosis. Google it. I believe you likely will still want to invite me to parties and not be afraid of how I’ll behave.

Photo Credit: Magdalena Roeseler Flickr via Compfight cc

  1. Hello Dori,

    I found your post to be freeing. Your totally right, stigma is such a horrid little word. The worst part about it is that it dictates so much of how our medical system has become. Growing up I was diagnosed with ADD and ADHD, I’m sure if I had been honest with my school mandated neurologist, that depression and anxiety would’ve made the list of super friends to join my first two prognosis, thankfully, my English or lack of expressive words fell short to get him to understand that “my neck twitch” wasn’t involuntary and a product of restlessness or ADD but rather tension settling in my neck making it stiff. Often times people want to help but they don’t want to listen, the other half of the time they want to help but don’t know how to listen. Shareen over a OTV told me to check out her colleagues and fellow professionals, she named you as one of them and thought I would like your work, she’s right I love it. Your writing evokes something for me. It reminds me to be happy despite everything we’ve overcome. That we could sit and cry over the mountain we’ve crossed and it’s so easy to do that but the top is just too beautiful. So thank you for your words, thank you for your honesty.

  2. You have NO idea how wonderful it is to see your beautiful face over at “my place.” We simply MUST go clubbing to the mature bars together, LOL, and write ridiculous blogs afterwards. You make my life a better place….and I do thank you for the kind words. Much love–D.

  3. Dear, Dori,
    empowering piece that so many can identify with.
    Thank you for sharing a slice of your soul without inhibition or shame.
    By doing this, you allow others to come forward to share their stories, as well. x

  4. Darling Dori, you will always be at the top of my guest list for any party I ever throw! I love your daring to be free, your fierce courage, and your reaching out to a community of people who love and support you. The FC is an amazing group of warm-hearted, honest people and I am thrilled to be part of it. We are a ‘movement’! Thank you for this loving lesson. xoxoS

  5. This is awesome, Dori. Not only brave, but also an excellent summary of our society and its views on mental illness. I hope that we can all someday live in a world where the word “stigma” no longer exits. I wish we lived closer to each other so I could invite you to parties!

  6. Jackie, thank you so much. I know my words speak for you, too. Sometimes I grow so weary of it all. It’s like answering, “I’m fine,” all the time. It’s just plain easier. And sometimes I am!
    Love love love–xoD.

  7. Julie, I DO remember the ambivalence and THANK YOU for making me believe this was my truth and to say it out loud. Thank you for publishing it, and thank you most for supporting me…..love you–xoD.

  8. Dori-

    It makes my heart happy that you wrote this and allowed me to publish it. Do remember that little bridie that was ambivalent?

    This is one of those essays that says what no one else ever said – brave.
    Proud of your courage.
    Rock on.

  9. Dori,

    Let me count the ten thousand ways I love this piece. Your ability to break down the illness into spot on categories and deliver such a powerful, and empathetic piece. I am grateful to know you have a support team in place, and that you are thriving, surviving and so beautifully honest in this world. Thank you for sharing your amazing story. Stamping out stigma one glittery boot at a time.

    XX Jackie

  10. Thank you for reading this, Rachel. Yes, we have much in common–just different names. Know that this piece was written in your honor…because I Wrote What Scared Me. xoD.

  11. Thank you, Nicole, and how kind of you to share this in TLC. I’m sure there are many people there who can identify with this. I so appreciate your support and encouragement to write my truths. Love you…..xoD.

  12. My day can now start beautifully seeing your face here! I know that you understand more than others because of your caregiving. And I do agree….it gives me glitter and makes me sparkle! I’m so glad I have you in my life to remind me of these things. I love you SO much. Someday we’ll be together in Arizona! xoD.

  13. Amazing piece, my friend. The stigma against mental illness is shameful, and I’m sorry you know and feel it however, you empower me to continue to share my own story as I deal with the ramifications of trauma and the aftermath of anxiety, depression, and PTSD.

    Brava, beautiful warrior.

  14. Another spot on, beautifully written piece by Dori Owen. Stigma, in all it’s forms, is wrong, a product of ignorance, and is bolstered by ill-informed media “experts.” Thank you, Dori.

  15. Dori, my love. You are perfect! You are brilliant and your bipolar disorder makes you fabulously unique!

    It’s so true that misinformed people will either feel sorry, look down or be afraid of others that suffer from a mental disorder. What they don’t know is that people with mental disorders are perfectly ‘normal’ with a pinch of sparkles and glitter to enrich this dull world!

    You never mentioned (in your list of people) where we stand: the ones in your life that they too have a loved one that also has bipolar disorder.

    Love you to pieces, girlfriend! ♥

  16. Dori, you know how much I love this one and how much I can relate, unfortunately how much many of us can relate. Your voice is a powerhouse, and this is a gorgeous write. Thank you. Sharing on TLC with so much love.

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